We are very pleased that we were able to convince Tilmann Wröbel, creative director and founder of the Monsieur-T. Denim lifestyle studio, to serve as a guest author. Here he writes about his experiences and the insights he gained during his last trip to Japan. Enjoy reading his fascinating and highly entertaining piece. We sure would have liked to have been there with him–but now feel as if we were!

Japan is the denim fanatics’ destination. Working in the fashion and denim business for over 30 years, I had heard many stories about the incredible know-how of the Japanese denim industry. I had held trend meetings with clients in Tokyo and done the usual Shibuya/Daikanyama shopping-pilgrim destinations. But traveling to the actual manufacturing and authentic denim area of Japan had never figured on my agenda.

Invited by a group of manufacturers and Japanese TV, I flew out to the area where cotton had been planted for hundreds of years to turn a swamp into actual soil. This is the area where fabric is dyed with indigo, workwear has been manufactured since “ever” and where denim was started thanks to encounters between local fabric and clothing manufacturers with companies such as Levi’s in the early 1960s.



Day 1:

My arrival at Osaka went quite smooth (one hour to cross customs) and the local denim-team immediately took me to the city center to check the most important denim stores.

My first stop was the Osaka Evisu store, which was a group of connected small rooms, looking  a bit like a tiny British-American men’s club…. Famous Evisu jeans, shoes, logoed golf gear and the ever trendsetting fishing equipment, it was “all in.”  The store proposed an arty paint job on their denims, and the very kind team explained everything while bowing in traditional style.

The handmade arty paint-service on Evisu jeans, proposed in the Osaka store.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
The handmade arty paint-service on Evisu jeans, proposed in the Osaka store.

Going to the Samuraï store was an important thing for me. I had heard about the cotton fields Samuraï was growing in the area and eagerly wanted to make an appointment with the Samuraï Jeans Master, Masahito Ito, to check these out. Masahito was extremely kind, showed me his in-store jeans archives and we fixed our appointment in his Sasayama-based organic cotton fields.

Samuraï Jeans Master, Masahito Ito, in his Osaka Flagship store.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Samuraï Jeans Master, Masahito Ito, in his Osaka Flagship store.

We then took the road and went up into the Sasayama mountains to meet with Aoyama, one of the last remaining artisans who build the Kohaze metal closure pieces, initially made for Japanese workwear shoes and kimonos. Kayo Kubo and Keiji Aoyama showed me how they drive their unique machines, which were built “back in the day.” 

Japanese workwear boots are featuring ( almost invisible here ) traditional Kohaze metal closure pieces.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Japanese workwear boots are featuring ( almost invisible here ) traditional Kohaze metal closure pieces.
Traditional hand-made artisan manufacturing of Kohaze pieces
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Traditional hand-made artisan manufacturing of Kohaze pieces

 

Day 2:

My travel took me to the Ibara area of Okayama, a holy ground of denim. We met with Tatsushi Kuroki, the man, the myth… president of famous denim mill Kuroki, and his team.

I saw fantastic indigo rope-dyeing, true to the bone weaving (no pictures allowed), with Toyoda shuttle looms and impressive jacquard machines, weaving the unique denim fabrics you will see soon in the posh shopping windows of the most famous luxury brands worldwide.

 

Tatsushi Kuroki and Tilmann Wröbel
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Tatsushi Kuroki and Tilmann Wröbel

In Sobara/Kurashiki I met with Tokushi Takeyari, head of the traditional and old Kurashiki Hanpu cotton spinning & weaving unit. This was one of the most mind-blowing moments in my fashion life…. A lovely old Japanese factory building, with a glass and metal roof, wooden floor, old-fashioned spinning and hundreds of old-fashioned wooden shuttle loom machines that hummed gently while weaving exquisite 31-inch cotton canvas made for bags, shoes and jackets…. It was a real goosebumps-causing  moment of rare beauty!

At the Kurashiki Hanpu cotton-spinning & weaving factory
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
At the Kurashiki Hanpu cotton-spinning & weaving factory
Rare shuttle loom mills at the Kurashiki Hanpu factory
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Rare shuttle loom mills at the Kurashiki Hanpu factory

Next stop was Showa, that very small premium denim mill, which has probably the most compact rope-dyeing machine I have seen in my life. The machine was custom built to the size of the building by grandfather Yunosuke Katayama. It was fantastic to see that much passion put into such rare denim know-how!

 Next stop Showa, that very small premium denim mill
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Next stop Showa, that very small premium denim mill

Then on the go we were again, to the Betty Smith Jeans Museum, where we met with Yasuhiro Oshima whose family started the Betty Smith, Long John and Levi’s manufacturing business in the early 1960s…. Yasuhiro took me even to the most hidden parts of his private denim collection. If you want to meet someone who knows about denim history, then Yasuhiro is definitely the guy you should meet in Kurashiki!

A 1950’s JC Penny “Payday” coverall, seen at the Betty Smith Jeans Museum in Kurashiki.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
A 1950’s JC Penny “Payday” coverall, seen at the Betty Smith Jeans Museum in Kurashiki.
Ancient horizontal stonewashing machines at the Betty Smith Jeans Museum / Kurashiki.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Ancient horizontal stonewashing machines at the Betty Smith Jeans Museum / Kurashiki.

The day was long, and we finished with a beauty… the Whoval laundry, run by Shuji Ishibashi, whom you might have met with his brand Blue Sakura at one of the editions of Selvedge Run. It was the first time I’ve seen so many hip youngsters working in a laundry…. Interesting fact: As much as Turkish or Indonesian pumice stones are used in most places for stonewashing, here in Japan the stones come from Kyushu, a city located in the southern part of the country.

The stones that are used at the Whoval laundry, come from Kyushu, a city located in the southern part of Japan.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
The stones that are used at the Whoval laundry, come from Kyushu, a city located in the southern part of Japan.


Day 3:

It was going to be another long day, including interviews and our studio’s denim seminar, held in the Kurashiki Fashion Center. So again we had to start early–which is normal since it’s the Land of the Rising Sun….

Our first stop brought me to the almost fully automated denim laundry Howa. Shingo Maeda gave me a run through his laundry, which has beautiful Jeanologia laser equipment and fully robotized scraping bays (impressive Terminator types…) Howa also hand handscraping bays, and does man-made whiskers etc. It’s really a place where “man and machines” team up for beautiful denim washes.

Howa performs handscraping and provides also fully automated scraping.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Howa performs handscraping and provides also fully automated scraping.
Howa is equipped with an important amount of Jeanologia lasers.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Howa is equipped with an important amount of Jeanologia lasers.

The Kapital Clothing headquarters are also in the Okayama region, more precisely in the little town of Kojima. Paired with an extremely nice Kapital store, the place comes with the typical mix of Japanese culture, international influences and a deeply devoted passion for uncommon denim. The place is fantastic, here again, we were kindly requested to not take any pictures… so I’ll leave it to your imagination.

And off we were to the headquarters of famous brands Japan Blue and Momotaro (and the denim-fabric vendor Collect, for those who know). My friend Katsu Manabe was cruising Europe that week, so I was welcomed by his very cool PR manager Katsuya Kimura who showed us the place and the very special Momotaro “Copper label” premium collection workshop. This place had it all for nice denim manufacturing–vintage Union Special machines… you name it. The good thing around here is that the people actually know how to repair all these old machines and know how to make them work. No lie!

Sewing with vintage “Union Special” machines on the Momotaro “Copper label” products, at the Momotaro / Japan Blue headquarters.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Sewing with vintage “Union Special” machines on the Momotaro “Copper label” products, at the Momotaro / Japan Blue headquarters.
A vintage Union Special machine at the headquarters of Japan Blue and Momotaro
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
A vintage Union Special machine at the headquarters of Japan Blue and Momotaro

No travel to Kurashiki would be complete without a shopping trip to the world famous Jeans Street, a denim-manufacturer initiative to make a formerly wealthy and lively textile area spin heads again. (Remember, the area has been cultivating cotton and dyeing indigo for hundreds of years…) And some of the Jeans Street stores really will make your denim-heads spin, I swear!

Katsuya took us to the Momotaro store where he showed me the handwoven denims made out of Kurashiki Cotton, and hand-dyed in indigo…. Achieved with passion and love, 10 meters of denim fabric a month. Wow!

 

At the Momotaro store, I witnessed the “handweave” for a bunch of rare denims made out of Kurashiki Cotton
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
At the Momotaro store, I witnessed the “handweave” for a bunch of rare denims made out of Kurashiki Cotton

My travel finished then with the long-awaited meeting with Samuraï Master Masahito Ito in his very own Sasayama organic cotton fields. It’s his dream to make Samuraï jeans fully Japanese from the cotton to the make on a larger scale…. It’ll take some time until the fibers get longer. (And don’t fear, the picture I took from the fields was a bit after harvest.)

What a heartwarming feeling to see a senior denim master living his very own denim-dream.

Meeting Samuraï Master Masahito Ito in his very own Sassayama organic cotton fields.
Photo: Tilmann Wröbel
Meeting Samuraï Master Masahito Ito in his very own Sassayama organic cotton fields.

What a great time it was! So many fantastic and devoted denim people I met. What a country with incredible denim know-how. I am eagerly looking forward to my next travel in January, to dig even deeper. Stay tuned!


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Tilmann Wröbel

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